The Brave, Perilous Act of Communicating

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. — Oscar Wilde

When we think about communicating, we often think in terms of transferring ideas. But in real human communication, there is no transfusion, or transplant or hard-wired data link.

Using the word ‘transfer’ conjures an inaccurate and indeed deceptive conceptual model. It suggests a perfect copy. But that’s never how communication works.

Rather, in communication, new ideas are formed in another person’s brain.

This is critically important; it means that the process is not as simple, tidy or controlled as our language insinuates.

The brand-new ideas we’re forming in each others’ brains are not necessarily aligned with the communication being received.

  • First, there’s environmental noise. We may not actually receive the communication clearly because it’s interrupted or interfered with en route.
  • Second, there’s internal noise. This describes the clutter of thoughts in the mind of the speaker, and in the mind of receiver. A thought might be expressed poorly because it’s rattling so hard against so many other thoughts. And it could be interpreted poorly for the same reason.
  • Thirdly, there is interpersonal noise, which boils down to the relationship between the sender(s) and receiver(s). There are all kinds of unpredictable aspects of this that we cannot control, and often aren’t even aware of. They all influence us in how to believe, position or prioritise the incoming communication.

And even in the absence of noise, we may still arrive at a disagreement — there is a huge spectrum between agreement and disagreement that we often fail to acknowledge. (Especially in the apparent contemporary quest to impose polarisation to absurd extremes.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that communication failed.

It might just mean that people are different.

And we have to learn to appreciate the diversity with curiosity, grace and tact.

Yet to assume that people disagree with us because our communication is poor is a tragedy. When — with a little awareness, care and humility — we could do so much better.